Deborah Orr: Mrs Blair, the serious celebrity

'Nothing has changed. The womenfolk of men in power have long been expected to do nothing except look nice and do good works'
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The Independent Online

Is there a weird symbiotic relationship developing between Mrs Cherie Blair and news headlines? Take the OECD's latest survey. It has uncovered (surprise!) a large discrepancy in school performance between students from professional and non-professional families, with social background playing a large part in academic achievement. More specifically, a 97-point difference in "reading points" separates the quarter of British students whose parents have the best occupations and the quarter whose parents have the worst.

As if by magic, concurrent with this revelation emerging, Mrs Blair is on hand to offer an illustration. This is useful, because without Mrs Blair, we aren't really able to grasp stuff. Who even began to understand the privations of women under the Taliban, for example, until we understood that this must be similar to expecting Mrs Blair to go about with her thumbs and forefingers providing a circumference for her eyes?

And who would realise, without Mrs Blair's timely intervention, how it can be that the people with the top jobs get the children with the top marks? Apparently it works like this. Your son is taking part in a school debate on nuclear arms policy, but you don't have the first clue about it. Which is funny really, because your husband, the Prime Minister, has publicly declared that he would be prepared to press the nuclear button.

Anyway, he's too busy waging war on other, less nice, people who would be prepared to press the nuclear button, to be of any help in the matter. So you mention to a handy Downing Street official that some leaflets wouldn't go amiss if they were lying around.

This toadying fool leaps into action and calls the Ministry of Defence, where more toadying fools (the team of specialists who deal with government policy on nuclear deterrents) put together a briefing dossier and send it round by special delivery.

And there you are. That's how the children of people with top jobs manage to do so much better than those without them.

Sadly, in the top jobs you have to take the rough with the smooth, so you can't complain when some bitter despiser of the toadying fools leaks the whole operation to the newspapers, where it's picked over comprehensively by other people in top jobs. Who, we've already established thanks to our survey, cannot in general be averse to utilising their own advantages for the benefit of their children.

Like Stephen Glover, erstwhile staunch defender of Jonathan Aitken. He has this to say: " would be out of order even for a prime minister to let an official telephone the Ministry of Defence for help with his son's homework. That is not how things are done in this country - or, at least, not how they have been done these past 150 years. How much worse for Cherie, unelected and unaccountable, to have sought such assistance''

Who is he trying to kid? What we have here is an example of something that has been going on for much more than 150 years. A casual inquiry by someone powerful has unleashed a hysterical desire among the minions to curry favour by going over-the-top in their efforts to help.

There may be plenty of unfairness in the transaction but it is the unfairness engendered by advantage, privilege and power that we humans have been familiar with since we crawled out of the swamp. There are always plenty of lickspittles around, awaiting the next opportunity to suck up to the boss or his wife or his children. To suggest that this incident comprises a unique betrayal of democracy, rather than a routine one, is simply ludicrous.

What is fairly new, is that the transaction, transparently and democratically, has come straight to the public's attention, via a media ever-hungry for inside-Downing-Street snippets. Homework, acupuncture, hats, babies, drunk teenage sons, weird new-age pendants – these are the sorts of stories the media really want from Mrs Blair. There has been much discussion over Mrs Blair's "role" and the contradictions around it, but really that's a media by-product, a cover for the real meat, which is trivia.

Here's Robert Kilroy, another man in a top job, fulminating away: "One moment, she is the Prime Minister's wife, traipsing around the country posing for pictures. The next, she's Mrs Booth QC, too busy making big money to smile. The next? Well, she's a combination of the deputy prime minister and the minister for women." Come now Mr Kilroy. Are you really so obtuse that you don't understand that all of these roles are insignificant compared to what is now her main one? Why fret about these insignificant jobs? The thing about about the Prime Minister's wife is that she's a political It girl, famous for being famous, firmly on the A-list. Mrs Blair is now, first and foremost, a celebrity.

In recent weeks alone, we have been informed that she has consulted the diet guru who helped Kate Winslet to lose four stones, that her acupuncturist was patronised by the Princess of Wales, and that she arrives in the Sedgefield constituency with her husband, her personal trainer, and her dresser.

We've also heard that she and Roger Moore have been the figureheads for a fundraising campaign for homeless charity, the Passage; that she and Martine McCutcheon have been raising awareness of domestic violence; and that she and Mel C have created celebrity dolls for a Barnardo's auction. (No charity now can raise a cent, it seems, without the endorsement of a couple of celebs, and Mrs Blair is a celeb of seriousness.)

All this, we accept as perfectly all right, when in fact it is all this that should be troubling. A woman with a significant, demanding career finds herself in the public eye, thanks to the success of her husband. From the early hours of the first morning of his elevation, she is criticised for not looking good enough, not being media-savvy enough, and distrusted as some sort of sinister "power behind the throne".

In a few short years, the demands of the media, and her own ambition, have turned her into a clothes horse for good works. Her job is to work hard at looking lovely, and then to lend the resulting face and body to charitable efforts. Anything else she does – like straying too far into political life (even by enquiring to a civil servant about homework) or taking on a legal case that might be seen either to contradict or to promote government policy, is frowned upon.

In other words, nothing at all, Mr Glover, has changed in the past 150 years. The womenfolk of the men in power have long been expected to do nothing except look nice and do good works. One would think that the example of Diana, Princess of Wales, would be enough to teach us all that such a role does not make women at all fulfilled. But instead the media and the public carry on demanding it and, like lemmings, women carry on obliging.

The Mr Glovers of this world insist that they would make just the same criticisms of Denis Thatcher if he had taken the liberties with his wife's power that Mrs Blair does with her husband's. But the truth is that no one was running stories about Denis's figure, his clothes, or the fact that he actually had a job of his own and a family, in the first place. Mrs Blair has, since schooldays, always worked hard to please.

So maybe it's not surprising that she has thrown herself so wholeheartedly into being the acme of what a female in the public eye is expected to be today.

She has escaped one stereotype by refusing to be the behind-every-good-man-figure. But her new one – the-having-it-all-celebrity-in-my-own-right – is every bit as restrictive. I really hope it's making her happy.